I finally found a beginning that satisfied both me and Eternal Press, who will release the book sometime this year.
The brisk northerly blustered its way through the tall stacks of containers and whipped up wild dust devils on the concrete wharf apron. It fluttered the skirts of Julie’s light summer dress, molding them against her thighs and drawing a flurry of nudges and winks from the linesmen waiting at the Hamilton Wharf of the Brisbane River.
In mid-stream,the Kooyonga seemed impervious to the wind, swinging ponderously about her mid length axis to point her bow downstream. On the wing of her navigation bridge, a small civilian-suited man raised himself to new heights of histrionic display, threatening the heavens with a hand held portable radio and shouting over his shoulder at some unseen listener as he gestured imperiously.
“That’s the pilot,” Terri pointed. “He boards the ship in Morton Bay, brings her up the river and then turns her round before putting her alongside the wharf. It makes it easier when they leave in the morning.” She was working hard to persuadeJulie that this was a good idea, adding details that might pique her interest.
“She looks big.”Julie didn’t know what else to say. Even in the middle of the river, the Kooyonga towered above them, her slab sides extended upwards by three layers of containers stacked on her deck.
“They’re building bigger ones now.” Terri grasped the opportunity to air more of her knowledge.“She’s only thirty thousand tonnes, the first of the second generation boxboats. The Kooringa was the first purpose built container ship in the world, ran mainly from Melbourne to Fremantle, self-discharging with its own crane. They’ve built special cranes on the wharves now and the second-generation ships don’t have their own any more.It allows them to stack the containers higher on deck. There’s talk of building special container terminals in all the major ports and the wharfies are going ape at the prospect. It threatens to halve their numbers and their union's not happy.”
Julie was glad of the distraction. She wasn't happy with Terri’s reason for this visit to the ship. Her attempt to become a show dancer might not be going well, but Terri's suggestion of a trip on a coastal ship as a virtual stowaway was a step too far.It didn't help that Terri had done it before, calling it a "ringbolt trip" for some obscure reason.
Their money was close to exhausted, but there had to be another way.
The Kooyonga, now facing downstream, had two tugs shunting her towards the wharf, the tall white-painted accommodation block at the aft end opposite to where they stood. The lines' boats had already picked up the thick yellow hawsers and were towing them towards the waiting lines men on the wharf.
“Be another ten minutes before she’s secure and they rig the gangway,” Terri said. “You want to take the weight off your feet?” She indicated a bench seat at the far end of the wharf. They were both wearing heels, having dressed to visit the ship and meet Bill.
“It looks like every seagull in Brisbane has beaten us to it.” Julie shrugged her refusal and then turned away from the ship as a taxi arrived.
A tall figure in a crumpled suit emerged to stand a little unsteadily as he paid the fare.
“MacDonald’s back and pissed already.” Terri shook her head. “He’s the Mate, a miserable bloody Scot with a grudge against the world. The deck crowd won’t be happy.”
The man retrieved a battered two-suit valise from the cab and stepped back as it drove away,swaying a little, before he turned towards the ship and saw them. Julie was smiling at Terri’s remark and her expression brought a wash of fury to his face.He lurched a step towards them. “Fuckin’ slags.”
Julie took a pace backwards, shocked by the venom in his voice.
“That's enough,Mac.” Another man emerged from behind a container stack, carrying an equally well-used, but more expensive suitcase. “You don't know who they're meeting and you 're already on thin ice.” He spoke like someone who expected to be obeyed.
Surprise washed the fury out of the Scot’s expression. He glared at the newcomer, but muttered something that could have been an apology and lurched away to stand closer to the edge of the wharf, his back to them.
The newcomer shrugged and turned to the girls. “My apologies. He not a happy man at the best of times...and things haven't been going his way of late." He had a nice smile and Julie's embarrassment receded a little.
"You're the Second Engineer." Terri recognized him. "Rejoining after leave?"
"Yes,"he nodded confirmation. "I thought you were familiar. Bill must be back from his leave too."
It was Terri's turn to nod. "This is Julie. She's a dancer, like me, and I'm Terri."
"Doug." He shook hands with both of them. "Where do you dance?"
"We're between shows at the moment," Terri gave the stock answer.
"I'm told it's a tough life." He wasn't fooled, but his sympathy seemed genuine."A friend of mine is the stage manager at the St George League's Club in Sydney and he was talking about it a week or so ago. He'd just auditioned a gaggle of girls to fill two slots and said most were disappointed."
"Noel?"
He nodded.
"We were part of that gaggle," Terri admitted.
"He said they came from all over."
He understood too much of their situation for Julie's composure and she was glad when the clatter of the aluminum gangway end grounding on the concrete wharf gave her the excuse to turn away to watch the group of seamen rigging cargo nets under it to provide additional safety. The Scot didn’t wait for them to finish, thrusting his way past the men doing the job and going up the steps with a clatter, his unsteadiness forgotten.
“Patience is not his strongest point.” The Second Engineer dismissed MacDonald with a shrug, picked up his suitcase and led the way to the foot of the gangway as the men tied off the last rope and retreated onboard.
They'd reached it and he'd stood aside to let them pass when the small civilian-suited man appeared at the top and started down. Alerted by the rattle of the swiveling aluminum treads, the newcomer looked up and shrugged, stepping back to ground his suitcase.
“Little man, big ego,” he explained, pitching it to carry to the top of the gangway as well.
“Busy man, actually. This is my fourth berthing today. We’ve three off sick and two ships still waiting in the bay,” the sea pilot riposted. “Thank you for your courtesy.” He reached the bottom of the gangway.
"You should try it yourself," their self appointed protector suggested.
"It's good to see you too. I'll buy the first round next time in compensation." The sea pilot thrust out his hand.
"Promises, promises, your arms are always too short for the depth of your pockets when you're standing at the bar."
The two men grinned at each other as they shook hands and then the sea pilot hurried away to the waiting car.
"Ladies first." Doug turned back and gestured for them to precede him.
Terri lead the way and Julie followed, finding the swiveling treads a trial. Designed to remain horizontal regardless of the angle of the gangway, there was enough slack in their linkage that they tilted through several degrees with the shift of Terri's weight as she climbed ahead of her. When the Second Engineer started the ascent behind her, his greater weight on the treads made the movements unpredictable and her progress slowed.
Terri was waiting with a touch of impatience when Julie reached the top. “This way,” she said,passing through an open steel door opposite the gangway top and disappearing down a steep stairway. Julie turned to thank the Second Engineer for his courtesy, but he'd already disappeared through another entrance.
She was thankful for the handrails when she followed Terri down the stairs and found herself in a brightly lit alleyway running fore and aft.
“We’ll go to the bar. Bill will be there by now.” Terri led the way aft.
It was a strange environment, alive with the muffled rumble of heavy machinery, Spartan, spotlessly clean, the linoleum floor polished to gleaming perfection, the inner wall painted steel and the outer one, with the cabin entrances, laminated sheeting.
Terri reached the end of the alleyway and turned to follow a cross alleyway, pausing at a curtained opening to allow her to catch up. “In here,” she said, holding the curtain aside. Julie glanced at the label that identified it as “crew’srecreation space”.
When she crossed the threshold, she found herself in a good copy of an English tavern, even the round ship’s portholes hidden behind facades of stained glass.
“Over here.”
Julie turned and saw a balding man she judged to be in his early forties, his face undistinguished until he smiled. It lit his face with mischief, merriment and good humor as it revealed two gold-capped incisors.
“Hi, Gorgeous.” He swept Terri into a boisterous hug. “You miss me?”
“The peace was great.”Terri’s grin made a lie of her words.
“Who’s this?” He turned to Julie.
“A dancer friend,” Terri turned in his arms. “Meet Julie Tyrell.”
Bill nodded his acknowledgement of the introduction, for his hands were too busy taking liberties Terri made no move to inhibit. He nodded to the three alcoves built to disguise the slope of the ship’s side this far aft. “Take the centre one and I’ll get us some drinks. What would you prefer?”
Julie let Terri answer and nodded to confirm her suggestion of a white wine. Apart from them, the bar was empty, so Julie followed Terri to sit in the back curve of a bench seat deeply upholstered in good imitation leather.
“The deck crowd will be in soon," Terri kept up the flow of information. "They’re removing the deck container lashing and hatch dogs for the wharfies. The blackgang will shower first. The engine room is hot.”
Coached by Terri’s explanations to get her here, Julie understood the division between the seamen working on deck and the engine room hands working below in the engine room. Tradition held great sway here, even when the age of hand-fired coal-burning ships had long passed and the black gang was neither accurate, nor particularly appropriate for the modern engine room worker.
Bill returned with their drinks, having poured a rum and coke for Terri and found a white wine for Julie. “This was left over from the last shipper’s do,” he indicated Julie’s drink. “We don’t normally carry wine.”
Julie was curious. “Shipper’s do?”
“The Skipper, Mate and Chief Engineer entertain the big shippers in the major ports. They come for the free booze and the novelty of drinking it on a ship. It’s a pretty lavish spread and the Chief Steward over estimated the wine consumption and gave us a half case that the Provedore wouldn’t take back.” Bill’s tone indicated another schism in the ship’s crew between them and the Chief Steward.“He threw in half a dozen cases of beer so we’d forget the stuff he loaded into his mate’s van afterwards. They don’t call him the Ship’s Thief for nothing.”
This hidden world was fascinating and the way Bill and Terri responded to her questions hinted that they would raise the subject of a "ringbolt trip" soon. Terri had sailed with Bill on the last one and was anxious to buy time until the renovations to the Matador were finished. She'd have to convince them it was a step too far for her right now. The future might change that…
“Hi Bobby,” Bill greeted a new arrival. “Grab a beer and join us?” He turned to Julie. “Bobby’s cabin is next to mine. We share the bathroom between us.”
The newcomer was around her age, blonde and good-looking. “Do you mind?’ he asked, looking at Julie.
“Of course not,” she assured him, awarding a mental tick for the courtesy. It didn't hurt that he had a nice smile.
He was the first of an influx and before he returned to their alcove with his drink twenty men and several women had joined them and were growing noisier by the minute. Julie caught snatches of strange conversations, fluent swearing and arcane terms, like “soogee”, “peggy”, “mud pilot” and “donkey-man”.
Bobby noticed her interest. “Sounds a bit strange at first, doesn't it? Took me the first month before I stopped looking blank when someone spoke.”
“You’ve not been at sea long?” Julie picked up the implication.
“Came in last Xmas as a white-carder and was made a full member a month ago when some old blokes pulled the plug and went ashore. My uncle was one of them.” Bobby shrugged. “It’s who you know that counts.”
Julie processed that. It fitted what Terri had said earlier and showed that their union had achieved a closed shop, strictly controlling all new entries as it faced an uncertain future and strove to protect its members. Her father had insisted that Australian industrial history had been an elective in her degree and the story sounded familiar…
The guilt of not having thought of her father for days struck home and Julie closed her eyes against the pain. When she opened them again, Terri’s hand was resting on hers.“You all right?” she asked.
Neither man spoke, but she sensed their concern. “A memory ambushed me,” she opted for the truth. “I’m all right now.”
“Someone’s put a flyer on the notice board about a dance at Cloudland’s tonight,” Bobby earned another point from Julie. “What do you think?”
“I’m game,” Bill said. “We’ll eat here and grab a cab. If the joint’s dead, we can go on to the Breakfast Creek for drinks.”
Terri nodded her consent and Julie made it unanimous, welcoming a temporary retreat to normalcy. Being on the ship gave the two men too much home ground advantage. Both Cloudland’s and the Breakfast Creek hotel were in walking distance of where they were staying, giving her an easy out if it became necessary. She could relax andenjoy the evening now.
Three drinks later, they shifted to the crews mess room where the variety and quantity of the food served cafeteria style to all comers was a surprise. She remarked on it to Bill, who shrugged and allowed that it was improving.
“Once, you could tell the day of the week and the week of the month by what was on your plate because the cooks learnt “monkey see-monkey do” fashion as they worked. They ordered supplies by rote for fixed menus. The shipping companies did a deal to cut down the number of cooks by giving them training ashore and you’re seeing the effect.” He paused, as if considering. “Life at sea can be pretty boring, routines are imposed of necessity, so food becomes important and variety serves a purpose.” He smiled at her. “Having you around is good. You make me think.”
Julie returned his smile with interest. Bill had depth behind his simple worker façade and was exerting himself for her benefit, even if his motive was suspect.
“He’s right.” Bobby sought to join in. “I was trying to explain it to Mum last leave. Once we clear Cape Otway, there’s no land in sight until we reach the Leeuwin and routine takes over. You see the same people and say the same things each day, only what you eat is different.”
“Hardly a glowing recommendation for a sea trip,” Julie half teased.
“More an explanation why we play hard in port,” Bill chuckled. “Finish your meal and we’ll be on our way.”
“A bit early for Cloudland’s,” Terri complained. “We’ve got time for another drink in the bar, where it’s cheaper.”
“I’ll have enough of the ship in the next twelve weeks,” Bill said. “Bugger the expense.”
His vehemence triggered Julie’s next question. “How long have you been at sea, Bill?”
He seemed to hear something behind her words because he paused before answering. “Over twenty years now. I joined the Timbarra in the middle fifties. Did six years on the Black & Tan run, carrying coal from Newcastle to Adelaide and iron ore back from Whyalla until she did a run to New Orleans with sugar in Sixty-One. Then I joined the Manoora because it took me into Melbourne regularly. When she paid off, I went to the Princess of Tasmaniauntil the Kooringa started running in 1964. She paid off a couple of years ago and I came here. If rumor is right, Tommy Ables has put these on his hit list and I’ll soon be looking for another berth.”
“You’ve seen a few changes then…”
“Not as much as the older blokes like Les Frame. I missed the days when the shipping companies controlled the pick-ups and you stood around while some Second Engineer or Mate walked up and down the line, picking the ones they wanted. If you had a name a sa trouble-maker you could go without work for years, as Les did.” Bill shook his head, as if amazed at the injustice. “We were on wages and overtime until recently, working eleven hours a day for nine months or more at a stretch because the rates were starvation low and you had to work the hours to survive.Some companies still pull shonky tricks, like paying you all your leave when you go ashore, then calling you back early with leave still owing. Some of their people have months of accumulated leave on their books that they can’t afford to take. It means they’re manning their ships on the cheap by paying out leave.The Union would stop it if they could, but too many people would get hurt in the process.”
Julie was beginning to understand the power of tribal history in Bill’s mind. If it was this strong in a thinker, it must be over-powering in others less perceptive. The short tenure of the Labor Party in power had emphasized the confused soul of Australian socialism, its mixture of reforming zeal and working class rhetoric. Bill was typical of its power base and Julie understood it better for meeting him. She wondered how many of her fellow demonstrators against Vietnam in 1972 could say the same.
“This is getting to be a dry discussion,” Bobby decided. “We’ve got time for another drink before we head ashore.”
“You’re smart as well as good-looking,” Terri applauded him. “This is getting too deep for me.”
“Pearls before swine.” Bill shrugged. It was half an apology.
* * * *
Cloudland’s ballroom had once been great. Even now, Julie could see its former splendor and the dim lighting hid much of its decay. The sprung hardwood dance floor felt great beneath her feet and Bobby proved himself no mean dancer, moving loosely but in perfect time, conscious of her movements and blending his to hers. There were two bands alternating and the playing of the “Golden Wedding” by one sent a surge of excitement round the floor as trumpet soloist and drummer fed from each other. Bobby was less willing for the old time dances, but earned her admiration when he bravely took his place for “The Pride of Erin” and “The Military Two-step”, picking up the pattern of movements more readily than she expected.
“I learnt them for my high school graduation ball,” he admitted. “We had to partner the girls as if they were debutantes. It felt a bit silly at the time.”
“What did you do after high school?”
“Bummed around, followed the surf, did a bit of fruit picking in the Murray Valley, and generally waited for my uncle to wrangle a white card for me to join the Union.”
Both Bill and Bobby consciously capitalized the Union by their emphasis. She’d heard no one on the ship refer to it by name. It was just the “Union”. They gave their loyalty and it protected them from a return to the past.
“No National Service?” He was probably too young for the last intake in 1972.
Bobby shook his head. “I was lucky in the lottery of birthdates.”
Julie adjusted her estimate of his age. It made him at least twenty-two and suggested five years of casual work waiting for his entry to the Union and seagoing. A tribute to his patience, or the value he gave his union membership.
She’d lived in a different world.
Curious now, she asked more questions, exploring his experiences and her interest drew him out until he spoke freely about his increased leisure on leave and the freedom of a job that paid well enough for him to follow his interests.
“I wasn’t much of a reader at school, now I buy books to bring away and go through most of the paperbacks they send down each time in Melbourne. I read about Bali and surfed there last leave. Next leave I’m booked to fly to the UK to see what I think of Europe.”
“Do you live at home?”
“It’s where I keep my stuff.” She noted the qualification. “I see Mum and the others for a few days each leave. Dad’s long gone and Mum’s got a job in the local supermarket, so she doesn’t want money from me or my brother these days.”
“Is he at sea too?”
“No. He gets seasick walking to the end of a pier. He’s working in the Pilbara, talking of getting married.” His expression left little doubt of his thoughts on that subject.
The lights dimmed and the facetted mirrors of the disco ball above their heads sent swirling spots of light into the crowd as the music slowed and became sensual. Julie accepted his embrace and surrendered to the music, closing her eyes and trusting him to guide them around the dance floor. Three hours of dancing had washed the alcohol out of her system and she was pleasantly tired. Bobby had surprised her so many times tonight that she had decided to like him, willing to concede him some liberties should he attempt to take them.
His first moves were tentative, as if unsure as to how much he should read in her apparent acquiescence and Julie neither encouraged nor discouraged. Her mood was receptive, but not committed and there was a delicious moral laziness in waiting to see how he proceeded. She would decide when the time came, not before.
Johnny Mac, the family doctor, had provided her with protection when it became necessary and ensured she understood the other risks with a pragmatism that bespoke a wider experience than hers. He’d served as a young doctor in Korea and had been her father’s friend as well as their doctor.
Bobby grew bolder and Julie felt her body respond to the physical stimulation without any commitment on her part. It was an unusual experience, almost as if she was watching a stranger drawn into a foolish predicament, one the real Julie would consider unwise.
Encouraged by the lack of resistance, Bobby’s hands moved freely and he tightened his embrace so she could feel his erection, his lips touched her neck, just below her ear and his tongue sampled the fine sheen of perspiration there.
The detached part of Julie waited for the one wrong move that would allow her to end this folly and step away from a situation that was getting out of hand. It didn’t come and the final bracket of numbers ended.
“The pub’s closed by now, but the bar on the ship is open.” Bill and Terri had joined them.
It was a step too far for Julie. “Not tonight,” she said. "We can walk home from here."
"Then we'll walk you both home," Bill wasn't giving up.
They began strolling back along the ridge to Dot's, Julie and Terri's temporary home. The December night was warm and it was comfortable. Bobby took Julie's hand and she didn't discourage him.
"Will you come down to the ship before noon tomorrow?" he asked. "It's seagull day."
"He means chicken dinner," Terri explained. "Every Sunday is roast chicken, with steak for the evening meal. A hangover from the past."
"Super Deuce is back, so we'll be working bell to bell, but you can relax in the bar and we'll head up to the Brekkie Creek when we knock off," Bill added inducements.
"SuperDeuce?"
"Mister Douglas Ian Parsloe, Esquire, Second Engineer extraordinaire! He's the working boss of the engine room and demands his full pound of flesh each day."There was grudging respect in Bill's description.
"That doesn't explain Super Deuce," Julie probed.
"Traditionally, the Second Engineer is called the Deucer. Super Deuce identifies him from all the others. He's a hard man. Fortunately he's also fair and works harder than we do, so we tolerate him."
"What would happen if you didn't?" Julie picked up the implication.
"The Union would let the company know he was unpopular and let them decide whether they wanted to risk industrial problems." Bill shrugged. "It's worked in the past."
"I doubt that Les Frame would let it happen," Bobby made his contribution to the conversation.
"You can ask him tomorrow if you're game," Bill laughed. "They're negotiating the new award and Les is doing a trip with us to make sure we toe the line until it's signed."
"Is he the one you mentioned earlier?" Julie was interested. "The one who went without work because he was a trouble maker."
Bill nodded. "Les was a Union official for years afterwards, still is in an unofficial way. He's one of the blokes we call the Gestapo.The Union sends them along to keep us in line when they're negotiating something like an industrial award. He and Parsloe have sailed together a few times and understand each other. Some people..." Bill indicated Bobby,"think that makes them friends." He shook his head. "They're not, but there's a fair amount of mutual respect involved and they get along."
"Why are you sure they're not friends?"
“Ships on the Australian Coast operate with five unions. Us, in the Seaman’s Union; the Cooks; the Stewards; the Mates; and, lastly, the Engineers. There’s a lot of history behind them all, most of it bad, so we don’t see eye to eye over much and the largest gap lies between us and the upper deck, where the Mates and Engineers live. Only fools cross that line," Bill shook his head to reinforce his words, "Neither Les Frame nor Doug Parsloe are fools."
* * * *
Early next morning, Les Frame sat in the mess room watching the cooks start their daily routine. The turn around was quicker now than the last time he sailed on the Kooyonga; road transport was making deeper inroads to the passage of containers up and down the eastern seaboard and even to that across the Nullarbor to Western Australia. Wherever the big money end of town involved itself, the working man suffered. TNT taking over these ships had been viewed as a godsend until they realized it was just another step towards sending the trade offshore. These ships would soon be replaced by others manned by third world crews and flagged overseas, another nail in the Union coffin.
Amalgamation was the way forward, join all the unions into a single body with the power to force negotiation, but every element of history was against it, a sudden wave of weariness swamped Les. He’d fought so long and so hard...still, the wharfies were feeling the pressure too and they might listen to reason this time.
Janice had stood by him in the hard times, the years when being know as a trouble maker had meant rejection at every pick-up, going home each day empty handed, living on the charity of others less willing to stand up for a principle. She was gone now, a fading memory he could hardly recall. The two girls had their own lives and his son lay in a soldier’s grave in a foreign country, never to return. His grandchildren were adults; strangers, living lives so different there was no longer any connection to him.
A movement at the mess room door distracted him. He’d been waiting for this. “Good morning,” he said. “Join me for a brew.”
“Sounds like a good idea.” Doug smiled at him. “How are you, Les? Spending another Christmas at sea?”
A wry grin and a shrug sufficed.
The engineer took a mug from the rack and filled it from the teapot and sat down opposite.“You’re here for the award?”
Les nodded.
“It’s been a while since we sailed together?”
“Bit over a year ago, on this one. We paid off together in Brisbane.” Les could have listed every occasion if asked.
They’d come together on the anniversary of his son’s death, on an Adelaide Company steamer, the Beltana. It had been Doug’s first trip to sea and Les was the donkey man on the eight to twelve watch. As FourthEngineer, Doug was nominally in charge of the three man watch, but Les’s greater experience made that a lie the younger man was too smart to challenge before he’d found his feet in this new situation.
Les had been impressed by the organized way he’d set out to learn the engine room routine, watching Les and the fireman perform their duties, trying his hand at every one, mastering most at the first attempt. When they were idle, he was busy, tracing lines, poking about in every hidden corner, and asking questions that taxed his listener’s knowledge.
By their fourth watch together Les had seen enough to try a simple trick to test the young man’s ability and knowledge, nudging open a drain cock on the exhaust turbine to admit just enough air to affect the vacuum in the condenser. It was the sort of thing done by accident and had caught many engineers over the years.
Doug had noticed the change shortly afterwards, standing in front of the gauge board thinking for a moment before checking the temperature of the condenser outlet and steam space. It was an impressive piece of logic, worthy of a more experienced man and made more so as his search for the cause narrowed quickly to the offending cock. He’d returned to the control platform where Les was sitting, his eyes asking a question. Les had ignored it, keeping his smile hidden, but had never tested the younger man’s ability again.
“Do you ever think of letting others fight the battles?” As always, Doug honed in on his mood.
“What else would I do?” Les was honest.
“I’d miss seeing you around. You make my job easier.” Doug’s smile was genuine.
“I see MacDonald’s here.” Les was fishing.
“Yes.” Doug’s tone suggested he try another form of recreation.
“I was in the P& O that day.” Les persisted, softening it with a smile.
“I know.” Doug’s smile lessened and he changed the subject deliberately. “I was invited to a company function during my leave. These ships are up for sale.”
Les accepted his disinclination to talk about the P & O. “No offers yet, we’re told.”
“That’s what they’re saying publicly.”
Les considered that. Doug was a complex character, but he would never break a confidence so the information had come generally, for unofficial dissemination.
“Was there a date mentioned?”Les was curious now.
“The Chief is retiring in September.” The answer was intentionally oblique. “I’m scheduled to replace him as Chief for one trip before going to the Dargo.”
“As permanent Chief?”
Doug nodded.
“About bloody time.” Les thrust out his hand.
“Thanks.” Doug returned the handshake.
They chatted for a while after that, mainly about common acquaintances, and then Doug rose to his feet. “I’d better check with the Chief Cook to see if he has any problems for me. Thanks for the brew.” He washed his mug in the sink and went through into the galley.
Les watched him go; smiling at how neatly he’d avoided answering about the P & O hotel in Fremantle. There was a lot of speculation about the incident in the saloon bar,but precious little information.
Les had been there, but knew no more than anyone else.
He’d been having a final drink in the saloon bar, half hidden by one of the palms that decorated the adjacent lounge area, when Doug had stalked past him to a position mid way along the bar. The terrible tension in his body had shocked Les, stifling his intended invitation. It was like watching a wild beast goaded into rage by unseen and unreachable tormentors, ready to rend anything that crossed his path.
No one considered Keith MacDonald a lucky man and that day did nothing to improve his reputation.He’d been drinking as usual and his raw Scot’s voice had its normal whine as he complained about something at the far end of the bar. No one understood at the time why he decided to approach Doug, their confrontation at the shipper’s function was not general knowledge at the time, but it was like a yapping terrier attempting to harry a brooding tiger, for all the fact that the two men were of equal height.
Doug ignored the Scot, not bothering to respond, until the fool grasped his shoulder.
The descriptions of what happened next varied widely, even Les wasn’t sure of anything beyond a flurry of movement that ended with the Scot kneeling before Doug, his face white with pain, the offending hand bent back at a near impossible angle.
“Go away, Mac. I’m not interested.” The words hung in the sudden silence, their coldness a terrible warning.
A final shoves ent the Scot sprawling and Doug turned back to the bar, one hand reaching for his drink. Les thought he was going to down it and leave...
The scream of rage as the Scot launched himself at Doug ended abruptly as he collided with the bar instead and a hand twisted his head to grind the side of his face into the beer mat.
“I said, go away.”
A hammerlock lifted MacDonald from the bar and flung him sprawling in the direction of the exit.
What followed was not a fight. MacDonald had no chance to make it one. His enraged attacks were diverted, frustrated, and each one ended with him being propelled in the direction of the exit and no one blamed him when he finally decided to keep going, tears of rage and shame pouring down his cheeks.
The incident over, Doug turned back to the bar and faced the Licensee who had come to see what the fuss was about. “She went away without a word and died,” Doug said, as if in explanation. “I never knew.” He emptied his glass, placed it on the bar and walked out of the hotel.
The speculation about who “she” was had eased in the last year. No one was close enough to Doug to ask, not even Les.